Breaststroke is often considered a simple stroke to learn, but the need for fine co-ordination of limbs, and the challenges posed for orientation, makes it potentially more complicated than any other stroke. Efficient breaststroke can be viewed as a series of long glides punctuated by symmetrical movements of the arms and legs. In the action phase, swimmers pull back forcefully with both arms and pull the knees up towards the chest, followed by extending the arms forward while pushing out with the legs. Forward propulsion is generated by the hips and inner thighs, which push the water backwards when the legs are extended outwards and then brought together. This leads into the glide, during which the back should be allowed to lengthen and widen. The elements of movement and glide need to be properly timed for the stroke to be performed with fluidity and rhythm.
A common obstacle to swimming the breaststroke efficiently stems from a misunderstanding of the function of the arms. This is the only stroke in which the arms remain below the water-surface throughout, which limits the swimmer’s ability to exert propulsive force with the arms. It should be appreciated that the main propulsive force in the stroke, around 70%, is generated by leg action.
Overemphasizing the role of the arms sometimes causes swimmers to perform a wide, shallow arm-action, in which the forearms sweep back beyond the shoulder-line. This has two negative consequences. First, it means that the muscles of the neck and upper torso become the main means of lifting the head clear of the water. Secondly, the wide action of the arms tugs at the neck muscles so that the head is forced backwards. By using a deeper, bent-arm action and the body naturally rises with a minimum of effort and significantly less strain. Using our arms in an effective manner is therefore important for helping us maintain good use.
When your arms remain closer to your body as you pull them back, your head is not drawn back as far. As a result, you not only put less strain on your shoulder girdle, but you can maintain your forward orientation more easily.
Many breaststrokers lift their head excessively when they come to breathe in, so that their eyes are directed towards the ceiling. But to inhale, your mouth simply has to be high enough to break the surface and be in contact with the air. Any higher is both a waste of effort and reduces stroke efficiency by interfering with the body’s streamlining.
When you get into the water, experiment with this aspect of the stroke. Find out for yourself how little you actually need to disturb the head-neck-back relationship in order to rise up your body sufficiently to breathe in. Compare your habitual way of raising your head with a movement in which your face barely breaks the surface. There’s a fine line between raising the head just enough to breathe in adequately – and getting a mouthful of water.
The glide in the breaststroke offers the perfect opportunity to discover how stopping can allow us to release and naturally extend the body. Keeping the head pulled back interferes with this process of release and extension and impedes the flow and momentum of the stroke. Take advantage of and savor the opportunity of letting go in the glide. This is a liberating experience, enabling us to enjoy a powerful sense of release and natural extension as we move without effort through the water.
See how the balance of your body shifts when you change the position of your arms from by your side to ahead of you. Explore the different feelings by pushing off from the edge with your arms by your side. The shorter stance feels heavier and does not allow one to travel far. A longer body extension, with arms outstretched, gives a feeling of lightness and flow in the glide, and helps you slide easily through the water.
Competitive breaststrokers often exaggerate the extension phase of the stroke by incorporating a deliberate stretch into the glide. But what happens to your back if you do this? Overstretching creates an arching in the lower back and increases tension around the ribcage. Such stretching actually involves a narrowing of the back and compression of the vertebrae, a contraction rather than an extension of the body. This reduces our buoyancy, necessitating more effort to move forward. When we stop contracting, we lengthen and widen automatically, which is all that is required for an effective glide.